Funds to plan high school in Robey budget

$2.3 million proposed in capital spending would begin project

`Very good, very positive'

Some requests cut, but HCC could get $10.3 million in 2 areas

Howard County

April 03, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Months of campaigning for a 12th high school in Howard County paid off yesterday when County Executive James N. Robey included money to begin planning for the school as part of a proposed $152.4 million capital budget.

But with less surplus cash than last year, he put off a series of small projects, including $660,000 worth of renovations at the county's animal shelter, $1.1 million in road resurfacing and $75,000 in repairs at Howard Community College's Smith theatre. He cut other items, such as $500,000 to buy land for future low- and moderate-income housing.

Howard Community College did well overall, getting $9.8 million for a new classroom building and $490,000 for gymnasium renovations.

"If you look at our history, this is a significant moment for us," said President Mary Ellen Duncan.

If the county had waited a year, the matching state funding might have evaporated, Duncan said. "I think we would have been dead in the water without this," she said.

The proposed capital budget also included $1.7 to renovate the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia, and $2.6 million to begin development of the Western Regional Park in Glenwood.

Robey used a balloon with "12" written on it as a prop in announcing his decision - a tribute to the scores of children who brought similar balloons to his public hearing on the budget last month.

"Yes, children, and mothers, and parents, we have included $2.3 million" to begin planning the school, Robey said.

The school board had requested $4 million, but the executive said it would take a year to find and acquire a site, so he split planning money over two years.

Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City parent who helped lead the push for a 12th high school, called Robey's move "very good, very positive. It shows he's made a firm commitment" to the 12th high school and understands the need, Watson said.

Other school projects include construction of additions at Hollifield Station and Clarksville elementaries, and planning for an addition to Fulton Elementary and Patapsco Middle. Planning was funded for renovations at Howard and Oakland Mills high schools, and for an addition at Oakland Mills. Construction money is there for a $5.9 million renovation/addition at Atholton High.

Delaying some spending is a theme in the budget, as Robey "pushed the envelope" in proposing to borrow $43.3 million - $3.3 million more than his spending Affordability Committee recommended - to pay the bills.

He and Raymond S. Wacks, the budget director, said the confidence in the county's fiscal position, expressed recently by all three New York bond rating houses, made county officials confident the extra borrowing is a safe move.

The plan is contingent on $20 million in state school construction money, though only $16.7 million has been promised. Gov. Parris N. Glendening is to reveal how much more will come after the General Assembly ends next week. The county pumped $17.8 million in surplus cash into capital projects, about $10 million less than last year. Officials expect revenues - and surpluses - to drop again next year, Wacks has said.

"I felt that given the pressing needs of the county we should press forward," he said, noting that he funded every school board request that would provide more seats for students.

Robey said he met three times with school officials before making his final choices. "There should be no surprises for them," he said. "Are they going to be jumping for joy? I think not."

Robey cut money for a contingency fund and for some roof work, and pushed back some spending for several large school construction projects, providing $51.5 million for public schools instead of the $70 million requested.

A new western county middle school will get $8.3 million in construction money, starting July 1, for example, with another $6.7 million delayed until next year. The proposed northeast elementary school will also go forward, though Robey pushed $5.3 million of the cost back to fiscal year 2003.

Associate Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, who attended Robey's briefing yesterday in Ellicott City, said: "Splitting the projects doesn't have that much impact because it allows us to go ahead. Most of this we can live with, with the exception of the contingency fund,"

He said that money provides the board with flexibility.

County Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, and the only council member at the briefing, said borrowing so much money - $13.5 million more than last year - "is a big increase. That will be carefully looked at" by the council, she said.

The council has until June to adopt a capital budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, but can only make cuts in Robey's proposal. The executive will present his operating budget April 17.

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